I was watching a rerun of the police procedural Castle in which two cops fake hearing a woman calling for help as an excuse to kick down the door to her apartment. These cops were the “good” guys and they were trying to rescue the main character. So, of course, I was cheering for them.
But after I chuckled at one cop pretending to call for help in an old lady’s voice, I had an uncomfortable realization: I was enjoying watching police officers engage in misconduct.
True, no one’s rights were actually violated because 1) it’s a TV show and 2) the woman whose apartment it was lay dead inside.
Still, it made me wonder if similar scenes in TV shows of fake cops conducting searches without warrants, using excessive force in making arrests, threatening or roughing up criminals to get confessions, etc. have desensitized us to similar violations by actual police officers in real life.
We already know that entertainment may impact perceptions of the criminal justice system.
For example, you may have heard of the so-called “CSI effect,” which suggests that the TV show CSI (original version and various spin-offs) have raised unrealistic expectations in jurors of the forensic evidence they expect to see in a criminal trial.
Various studies have looked at how TV shows may also influence how members of the general public expect police officers, prosecutors and other members of the criminal justice system to act.
For instance, a study by researchers from Purdue University found that people who watch forensic and crime dramas on TV are more likely than non-viewers to have a distorted perception of our criminal justice system, including overestimating the frequency of serious crimes, misperceiving important facts about crime and misjudging the number of workers in the judicial system.
Another study that focused on the Law & Order franchise noted that because most Americans have little contact with the justice system, they learn much about the way the system operates from fictional TV shows. Based on this miseducation, they may conclude that certain police or investigative tactics, such as threats and “mild” physical abuse, are “useful, successful and perhaps even necessary.”
A more recent study specifically looked at the role of entertainment media on perceptions of police use of force. The researchers noted that while fictional officials in crime dramas are both highly successful and accurate, they also frequently use force. Moreover, these instances of police use of force tend to be portrayed as necessary and justified.
The results of the study’s survey of viewers and non-viewers of crime dramas found that these groups held significantly different attitudes toward the police. In particular, viewers were more likely than non-viewers to believe that misconduct generally doesn’t lead to false confessions and that force, when used, is typically necessary for an arrest rather than a form of street justice.
The fact is, most police procedurals either don’t show cops engaging in civil rights violations or misconduct, or they do so in a way that minimizes or excuses this bad behavior. Their motives are presented as pure—after all, they’re just trying to catch the bad guy.
These depictions are typically very black and white. That is, the cops are good—even the anti-hero archetypes—and the criminals are bad. So if the cops engage in any misconduct at all on the screen, viewers tend to see it as justified by the criminal’s own misconduct or rationalized as the ends justifying the means.
(A handful of TV shows, including The Wire, Southland and The Shield, contain more grey. They have more nuanced, and likely more accurate, portrayals of cops whose motivations aren’t always so pure and are often simply selfish.)
Intellectually, viewers know all of these shows are fictional and that certain liberties have been taken for dramatic purposes, such as speeding up the time it takes to get DNA or ballistics test results or for a case to go from arrest to trial.
But in the back of their minds, I’m sure many people believe these shows are essentially grounded in the truth—i.e., they’re “ripped from the headlines”—and so assume that the way in which the shows depict cops behaving is at least fairly accurate.
As a result, watching crime dramas may normalize civil rights violations, the use of force and other kinds of police misconduct in the eyes of the public, who may believe that these shows honestly reflect what cops need to do to succeed in the real world.
Thus, if you see law enforcement engage in bad behavior on TV and “forgive” them, you may be more likely to feel the same toward real cops when they engage in similar behavior. After all, who wouldn’t want a police officer to use any means possible to obtain the location of a bomb or a kidnapped child?
In this context, if the media reports that, say, police officers searched a homicide suspect’s house without a warrant but did find the murder weapon, the general public may not be outraged by their conduct because fictional shows have conditioned us to believe that such behavior is sometimes necessary to catch the perpetrator and close cases.
So unless you take police procedurals with a grain of salt and consciously separate them from reality, it’s easy to walk away from these shows believing that roughing up a suspect to get him to talk or cutting corners to seize evidence isn’t that big of a deal.
Why are such misperceptions of police misconduct troubling?
First, the assumption on TV is that although certain police tactics are questionable, they’re nonetheless necessary, and result in honest confessions and the arrest and conviction of guilty parties.
In reality, however, not only are such tactics unnecessary to close cases successfully but also studies have found that police misconduct leads to false confessions and, in some cases, wrongful convictions.
Second, public outrage may be necessary to drive changes in how police officers operate. If TV shows desensitize us to police misconduct, we won’t protest when they behave badly—except perhaps in extreme cases—and thus nothing will change and the system won’t evolve.
Bottom line: Crime dramas are some of the most popular shows on TV. And there’s nothing wrong with watching and enjoying them.
But it’s important to remember that they’re fiction and the actions of the characters have no real consequences. Because the actions of actual police officers do have very real and often serious consequences, we must hold them to a much higher standard than their fictional counterparts.
Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.